Monday, August 30, 2010

Do you wanna fly?

Americans are long known for their partying culture. Every city in America will have few streets or sometimes a considerable area dedicated for late night parties. There is but one place where the entire city is dedicated to partying, the name is Miami. When my practice head called me and asked me if I can travel to Miami to get knowledge transfer from our clients Burger King, I answered “Well... hmmm... yeah... I am OK” He just agreed to pay money for eating honey, did he expect me to say no?

A month and a half had gone by, working (you kidding me!) and partying (mostly staring at disco lights like a rabbit caught in head lights). Jude Vimal, my closest pal from college was in the US for three years and he had decided to visit Miami during a four day long weekend. We started planning three weeks in advance. The list was endless; Key West, Everglades, Snorkelling, Parasailing, Tampa, Miami Beach and what not. When we were discussing over the phone, I was casually mentioning how I knew a lady in my office who does sky diving. I had done it; me and my big mouth. There is no way I am going to talk him out of this, I must admit I was equally thrilled with the idea, me and my best pal jumping out of an aircraft simultaneously.

The next few days went by with me exploring various drop points (point from where divers jump off the aircraft). The most scenic ones close to the oceans were booked in advance for the long weekend. Nevertheless we were not the only lunatics around. Eventually, we had booked our suicide point, oh what? Sorry!! Drop point. It is a couple of hours drive into central Florida. So, the countdown had started for us to experience one of mankind’s greatest fascinations, the power of flight. Jude finally arrived with his friend at Miami and I had rented a fabulous dark blue Volkswagen Jetta for the weekend. We had visited multiple places in the first two days of his visit.

Me driving my Jetta

Tomorrow is the big day and we went to sleep very early. How would it feel if someone told you on the day of your English exam that it was actually maths exam that day? How would it feel to constantly have that same feeling of shock and despair for hours together? Well!!! Enrol for sky diving and try sleeping the previous night. I could see my parachute not deploying as if I were seated inside a 3D movie theatre; next second I am in the bedroom. I was weighing my options, loose $200? Or risk life and loose $200? It is not too late; I can act as if I have flu in the morning (I don’t want to be seen as chickening out). I woke up to a loud screech from the alarm. What a heartening sight to see the same ghost in Jude’s face and when we exchanged looks we knew we were sailing on the same boat.

The breakfast was in utmost silence and no words were spoken during the two hours of drive. As our GPS alerted of the final right turn, I knew for sure that was the wrong turn. All the courage had disappeared when we sighted a distant object falling in a clear blue cloudless sky. We exchanged nervous looks as we saw a man land in front of us in his parachute after a minute. Am I inside some Hollywood movie stunt? The next step was to sign lot of documents; disclaimers, insurance waivers and many more formalities. Why did I get the feeling of a goat walking itself into a butcher shop? 5 hours of waiting was not doing any good to the butterflies trapped inside my stomach. Professional sky divers would walk into the room we were waiting with deflated parachutes, assemble them very carefully, have a brief rest and get ready for their next jump.

What are we looking at?

Oh!!! That...

Did I hear my name being called? Damn right, I did! I was advised that I would be buckled to an expert diver and there would be one person jumping with us to capture the video. I had put on my diving gear and the thrill of flying got me all pumped up. The aircraft was waiting for us to board; A Cessna 206 with its engine rumbling. As I stepped out of the air conditioned room, I could feel the warmth of the early summer afternoon and the nerves seemed to ease out. After a final wave to Jude and his friend, I stepped into the aircraft (They would jump next round). The aircraft was nothing like the luxurious KingFisher flights, it had two parallel long seats (like our school benches) to either side and a few handrails for support. There was one young girl on her first jump and several more experts doing their routine jumps. We were all seated on the benches with legs to either side like mounted on a horse one behind the other. I was seated right in front of my instructor who was repeating the instructions for safe jump. The altimeter showed 5,000 feet (1.5 Km) when he started buckling my gear with his and he handed over a hard plastic protective cover for my eyes. I watched the land beneath through the window and the huge water body, Lake Okeechobee, one of the largest fresh water lakes of US. The altimeter showed a climb to 10,000 feet (3 Km) and my heart beat was climbing with the altitude.

As the flight settled at 13,500 feet (4 Km), the experts started moving to the door of the aircraft. I could not take my eyes of the person in the front of the queue as he positioned himself at the door. Blink of my eye and he is gone and that could have been my first unreported heart attack. I was watching one after the other everyone vanishing into thin air. My photographer positioned herself near the wings of the aircraft and I am seated at the edge of the door buckled to my instructor with my legs dangling off. My instructor was speaking into my ears “don’t look below when you jump, pose to the video camera”. I nodded my head in agreement and he said “Ready... On Count of three... One... Two... Here we go...” and he pressed forward and we went into a somersault and I could see the sky and the next second we were flying (falling) with my body facing the earth and the instructor on top of me.

Within seconds we were accelerating up to 200 kmph; I could feel the wind striking against my face in particular and the noise of wind was tearing through my ears. [200 Kmph is the terminal velocity for sky divers]. Within seconds my photographer joined us and was teaching some acrobatic moves. Against my assumption, I could not feel the fall (the land was not getting bigger, it appeared static) and I appeared to be flying than falling. My instructor signalled at a distant object in the sky; it was the young girl and her instructor falling. He signalled to me and deployed the chutes; with a sudden jerk, I felt myself being pulled up into the sky and my photographer vanished below my feet. I could see the other pair deploying the chute and their photographer too disappeared in seconds; the stark contrast at the falling speed of their free falling photographer and them with a parachute made my heart freeze once more. (The photographers landed earlier than us to capture our landing in video)

With the parachute deployed and we drifting relatively slowly, my brain started to function more clearly and I could finally admire my flight and the scene below me. Now with calmness finally restored, I could hear my instructor speaking, he taught me to steer a parachute, to turn, to brake and accelerate and he let me take partial control for some time. I could see fields below me and I wanted to ask him if we were going to land on the field but decided against it. He seemed to accelerate the chute away from the field and suddenly the runway was below me and we had arrived back at where we took off. He was steering us exactly to a spot filled with sand and a team standing to receive us. He asked me to lift my leg high, so that he could land with his feet and not mine. I could not guess our altitude from the land below, it wasn't until we landed that I realized we were so close, but the instructor seemed to know exactly where we were and what he was doing. He pulled the flaps of the chute and we came to a complete halt on the air and we landed so smoothly exactly in the middle of the landing spot (how he steered us there, only he could know).

I thanked the well trained team and realized how my fear was baseless. Every time I saw the replay of the video, I could still recollect the awe I experienced with the dive. It is somehow impossible for me to capture in words the thrill of sky diving. If you have not done sky diving before and you are indecisive, I would strongly recommend you to try. Make sure you have a well trained team in place. My tried and tested team, Skydive Air Adventures

Video of the jump,
Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Friday, August 27, 2010

My first love - Cricket (Part 2)

With a massive win in the first match, we needed just one more victory in two matches to enter the next round. Thanks to my convocation, I had missed the second match of the tournament. The team had lost a very close encounter defending a modest score. A must win match in the Indian Air Force grounds; we fought a valiant but losing battle. Absent minded, I was looking at Manu Tayal nursing a wound in his left hand from a full length dive in front of the sight screens at frightening speed. The team showed such commitment and drive to win, yet we had failed.

Why did we fail to win? Every time I asked this question to myself, I could come with a handful of answers. If only Vimal had restrained himself from not getting caught after hitting the first three balls of the innings to boundary. If only I had bowled one bouncer to that little brat who drove me to two consecutive boundaries. If only we had saved the two boundaries which went through the hands. Four years and tons of defeats later I am still asking the same question, why did we fail to win? I don’t care to answer that, I am bored. My roommate doesn’t ask me the result after the match anymore. My sister starts consoling without even asking the result. A consolation win every now and then doesn’t taste good anymore.

Ten kilos, constant knee injury and a torn stomach muscle later, I had decided to retire prematurely as most fast bowlers. The previous line to be read as “plenty of 50 runs partnership in 4 overs with my bowling partner (yeah, yeah, when I was bowling), plenty of angry stares from my captain and bowling as first change bowler later”. I had not played for two weekends and the feeling of missing the action didn’t help. I told my then captain Jagan that I am taking a break for three months. I had been planning for four years, finally I started working out every day; swimming, simple exercises, dumb bells and some jogging was the routine.

Three months later, I was with the new ball in my hands, the familiar adrenaline rush and Jagan is padded up. I raised my hands with the ball, shouted at him “New Ball” and started running gently towards the bowling crease. I had released the ball on good length, a swing and a miss. Nervously I picked the ball and went back to the start of my run up. 15 minutes later Jagan came back from the nets with a bruised leg and stomach and said “I had not seen a fiery spell from you like this in the last few months” I secretly knew I had him dancing with my bowling and I am ready for my second innings.

At around the same time Hari and Uday were coming up with some extra ordinary performances opening the batting. Jagan had made Hari and Vijayanand as captain and vice-captain. No more 50 runs partnership of my bowling, the team is not getting let down by me again. Suddenly, the team looked like a battle unit, not afraid of any opponents. My roommate and I speak in length about the matches. My sister still thinks I am lying. Yes we had started winning and for the first time in these five years I am really excited about my cricket. The team had won 6 of the last 7 matches (5 consecutive victories) en route to the first finals. A close defeat in the finals after a rare batting collapse (me top scoring with 36 :) ) meant we had to settle for second place this time.

This is by no means the end of the journey. The platform is all set for a take-off.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

My first love - Cricket (Part 1)

Two months into my training period with MindTree, I finally got details of the cricket team's captain and my first mail to him marked my first steps into what would be a fascinating journey for me over the next five years.

Very new to the corporate world and brain filled with fear as much as my dreams, innocently and tentatively I sent a mail, "Sir, please let me know if I can join the MindTree cricket team". The then captain Nagaraj Inamati had replied "Rajesh, Good to hear you are interested in cricket. Are you a bowler or a batsman? Have you played for your school team, college team, under - 16, club or divisional teams?” I could see my dreams disintegrating in my computer monitor. I had not represented a team in any of these categories.

It wasn't until 2nd year of my college when I started playing with cricket (leather) ball. Just because every class in our college had to have a cricket team, we too formed one. The biggest challenge for us then was to catch, for that matter to even stop a cricket ball on the playing field. (We realized why our 90's Indian cricket team preferred to run behind the balls rather than stopping it). Our bowlers were those who can produce 6 legal deliveries in less than 9 attempts, which translates to, anyone who can bowl the ball inside the mat consistently. It is a mystery, yet all Indians are batsmen by birth. Our top order batsmen are the dare devils who are not afraid of fast bowling; lower middle order batsmen are those who can slog and tail-enders are those who go into the field like stuffed dolls. The team is active for two to three weeks in a semester.

My real experience as a cricketer was with my "Colony Team" in Coimbatore right after I completed college. Youngsters from Maharani Avenue (name of the colony) falling in the age bracket of 21 - 30 comprised the team. Our family moved into Coimbatore when I was in my eighth grade and I played my first tennis ball match when I was in my ninth grade. Until then I was used to playing gully cricket with my brother and other younger kids, bossing around. So, when the captain refused to give me bowling, I spoiled sport and walked off the field with the ball (which was unfortunately mine). My subsequent endeavors weren’t any better; I never got to bowl or bat and I can’t blame my captain for that. All my team mates were physically dominating me at that age. I had no chance of getting to bat with a large queue always waiting. I was better off bowling, which way I could be amongst action. By the end of college though, things were different. I had outgrown most of my team mates and my increased height meant my bowling was more effective and increased muscles meant more pace. For the first time I was a regular in the team 11. The team had moved from tennis ball to cricket ball, color dress to cricket whites. Every weekend we would play against some local teams and our cricket kept improving, until I moved to Bangalore to join MindTree.

With no confidence of making into the MindTree cricket team, I replied to Nagaraj that I have not played for any of the teams he had noted and that I am predominantly a fast bowler (to my then standards). Nagaraj sent me a reply that the team would be practicing every weekend and I can join them and If I can prove my worth I would be given a chance. Later that week we were immersed in our training and Vimal Kanth was lecturing on “SQL programming”. To add salt to injury he also conducted an assessment. At the end of the assessment he called me for a word outside. Numerous thoughts were running in my mind, “did he spot me sleeping during the lecture? Is he going to punish me for helping my neighbor during assessment?” Vimal casually said “Gokul, we have our cricket practice tomorrow at 6 ‘O clock. We will be leaving from office 10 minutes prior to that”. There were multiple emotions, relieved that it was nothing about the lecture, happy to join the cricket team and nervous to prove my potential.

I was at the office by 5.30 in the morning, staring at the deserted roads, lone dogs barking in the chilly Bangalore winter. First signs of life appeared well beyond 6.15 when a man in mid twenties arrived in a bike wearing whites. I was relieved that I was not forgotten after all. He introduced himself as Nagaraj and sized me up to see if I could pass for a cricketer. We took the kits and headed to the grounds were Monish was waiting. The ground was water logged from overnight rains but the nets and run-ups were protected. Slowly rest of the team arrived and after a round of warm-up exercises and fielding drills I was up against Vimal with new balls in my hand. Adrenaline was rushing into my body to an extent which I had only previously experienced before 100 metre sprint. I ran in, released the ball and watched Vimal lazily leaning into the drive while the ball crashed into his off stumps. Nothing great with the delivery but Vimal had not woken from his sleep yet. How does it matter, people took notice and I was pleased. Sometime during the practice, I overheard people talking “I think we got our opening bowler”. Pumped up I was bowling my heart out throughout the entire practice session watching some of the best drives and cuts from the batsmen.

Two weeks later, I was playing my first corporate tournament. MindTree vs. Caritor; the stage was set for a 25 over encounter. For the first time I was playing in a lush green outfield. MindTree decided to bat in a sunny afternoon. After a top order collapse, Nagaraj powered the score to a decent 130 runs. It was time for us to bowl. Nagaraj opened bowling and took a wicket in the first over. Second over, I could feel the same adrenaline rush as I was waiting at my run-up. I approached the bowling crease gently and released the ball full and the batsman got beaten. Growing more confident I ran in for the next ball with more speed and released the ball with my full potential and saw the stumps uprooted. We ended up bowling them out for 70 and my first match with MindTree was a massive victory.